Blackness in ‘Clifford’s Blues’ : Liberating or Imprisoning?

For many African Americans post-American slavery, and especially post World War I, Europe was a place widely talked of as a utopia for young black men. Historical figures from fugitive William Wells Brown to Dubois, from Frederick Douglas to Mary Church Terrell, and from Claude McKay to James Baldwin, described places such as London, Paris, and Berlin as havens for the African American. Places where their identities as black men didn’t inhibit their chances at success, a much different sense of hope and security was offered in Europe than in their own country, the United States of America. For several black artists, the uprising in popularity of Jazz music transformed their lives for the better. Musicians were invited to cities like Paris and Berlin to perform openly for widely accepting white audiences. Post World War I was a time where parts of black identity, rooted in Jazz music, was an attribute that gave African Americans a chance in Europe that they didn’t have before. Fast-forward to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and suddenly the desire to be a part of the European world as a black man is thwarted when the harsh reality of discrimination wedges its way into the everyday lives of Europeans. John A. Williams’ novel, Clifford’s Blues,depicts fictional journal entries of a homosexual black American Jazz musician in Berlin during the 1930’s. Finding himself at one time at the top of his own identity as a black queer in Berlin, Clifford is then suddenly thrust into a concentration camp, prisoner at the hands of an SS officer named Dieter Lange. In the first few chapters of this novel, John A. Williams shows us that identity being an African American, an African American Homosexual male, and being an African American Homosexual male who plays jazz music is a complicated, chain and key identity that shifts in and out of being imprisoning and liberating for the black man at the hands of a white nation.

John A. Williams employs several tactics in his writing to convey to the reader the importance of the identity of the narrator, Clifford, and how that affects the way in which the world perceives him, how he perceives himself, and how he himself perceives the world he has suddenly been thrust into. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the way in which Williams uses Clifford’s identity to manipulate how we as readers perceive Clifford. At the very beginning of the novel, Clifford is already imprisoned, and begins describing to the reader who he is and how he came to be arrested: “I’m an American Negro, and I play piano, sometimes, and I’m a vocalist, too.” (Williams, 12). Notice here how Clifford does not mention his queerness or the fact that he plays jazz music specifically, only that he is an American Negro who plays the piano. This paints subconsciously, in the readers’ mind, a picture of a victimized Negro from the 1930’s who probably has done nothing wrong, and finds himself imprisoned. It is important to note that Williams decides to omit this information initially (though he quickly gets to the point about who Clifford really is), because during the time period this novel takes place, the more specific parts of Clifford’s identity, apart from the black skin we see on the outside: being queer and being a Jazz pianist and vocalist, are incriminating, taboo characteristics in Nazi Germany. In fact, the entire first entry of Clifford’s journal shows a desperate tone that contradicts notions that Europe is a place of haven for black people at this time. Clifford even dares to say:“As soon as I do get out, I’m hauling ass back home. I don’t care what it’s like. They never did this to me in New York… I’d even go back South to get out of here. Any place but here.” (Williams, 13) To a modern reader, the idea that Clifford Brown is in peril so great that he is desperate enough to go back home to the lynching, Jim Crow South in America triggers such an alarm, that we begin reeling off in our heads with questions about just how bad Clifford’s situation is, and also what he possibly could have done to get into it. Williams’ use of punctuation and diction really underscores the desperation Clifford feels in the novel. Frequent short sentences interspersed between sentences with longer clauses that are separated by commas convey a conversational voice of the narrator that displays sincerity, vulnerability, and relatability to the reader. Williams is convincing the reader that they are about to read a set of journal entries that are raw, real, and without the pretentious air of a more stylized form of fiction writing. It is this tactic that Williams uses to weave Clifford’s identity into the world around him.

Williams’ writing style isn’t completely omitted for the sake of conversational authenticity, however. Figurative language and metaphors are the primary tools he uses to create the world of Clifford as he sees it, rooted in who he is. The next time the reader encounters the queer aspect of Clifford’s identity, Clifford is describing what he was doing when he was arrested in Berlin. Clifford states his belief that being an American would get him out of the situation, as being a diplomat got Malcom, his lover at the time, out of the arrest. However, Malcom takes Clifford’s passport, his official documentation of his identity, rendering him “like [he] don’t exist” (Williams, 14). This is symbolic of Clifford no longer having an identity in Europe as an American citizen, but suddenly being labeled as a rogue black queer that plays degenerate music. Clifford goes on to write: “But I was somebody in Berlin. At least I thought I was… If Almighty God walked into Hitler’s office without signing in, then as far as the Germans are concerned, He did not walk in.” (Williams, 14)These quotes highlight two very important elements of the novel onset: one, Williams is blatantly uncovering the massive misconception that Europe is a place of sanctuary and openness for black Americans. “But I was somebody in Berlin. At least I thought I was”, underscores the lie that many blacks at the time entered Europe believing: that no matter what, Europe’s treatment of black people was not as bad as America’s. This simply is not the case. Another instance of commentary on this subject is when Clifford states: “Living in Europe, being considered a strange, exotic creature, gave me… a sense of being important, and that made me… fall into this snake pit.” (Williams, 17). Especially during Nazi Germany, identification was the crucial element that could get a person imprisoned or promoted to SS general. Soldiers marching the streets were in constant demand for identification papers to separate Jews, blacks, queers, and other untouchables from the preferred German citizens. Williams’ metaphor of God walking into Hitler’s office further strengthens the importance of identity to the Germans. If God himself is rendered non-existent due to the absence of papers, a black American man in Berlin is no more than a black American man in the Jim Crow South. In fact, being an American does absolutely nothing for Clifford when it comes to his arrest, imprisonment, and assignment of a triangle.

The one thing that “saves” him from experiencing the concentration camp is the fact that Dieter Lange, a pimp who’d often watch Clifford perform in Berlin before the Nazi takeover, is an SS officer who takes Clifford aside and assigns him to be his own personal prisoner. This is because Dieter Lange knows Cliff is a queer, and wants to abuse him sexually in the privacy of his home: “… Here he was now, getting into a car and telling me to hurry because he wanted to fuck me good.” (Williams, 18) Interestingly enough, Cliff’s homosexuality gets him sent to Dachau in the first place, but saves him from the intense physical labor of the concentration camp. Either way, in the scheme of things, Clifford’s homosexuality is a shackling identity in Nazi Germany. In the prison assigning scenes, Williams plays with labeling of identity through the metaphor of the shaving, the uniforms, and the triangles. In the shaving scene, Cliff describes the floor, which is covered in hair from all of the prisoners: “The floor was inches thick with hair—black, brown, gray, blond, white, straight, curly.” (Williams, 16). This is an image Williams uses to depict the metaphoric shedding of identity that the Nazis forced onto their prisoners. In this room, everyone who wasn’t the ideal was stripped bare of what was irrevocably theirs: their hair. The Europeans have decided to take Clifford, a queer, black American man, and strip him to his core, only to reassign him to what they deem fit. Dieter Lange, who had been standing in the same room, gives Clifford a Green triangle. This is not a triangle that is designated for queers, which is pink, but instead, it is a triangle that identifies Clifford as Dieter Lange’s personal prisoner. After this, Clifford is given a uniform to put on: “The uniform smelled and did not fit, and the SA were kicking me.” (Williams, 17). Williams is painting a clear picture of identity here. The hair is symbolic of true identity being stripped away, the triangles are false identities being assigned to prisoners by the European Nazis, and the clothes are, in Clifford’s case, a mask that doesn’t fit, much like the green triangle is a mask that does not fit Clifford’s true, pink-triangle-queer self. Europe is covering up what this black man truly is, and is parading him around as its own personal prisoner. In many cases within this novel, John A. Williams subtly places symbolic imagery to convey the underlying struggle of identity for Clifford.

At this early point in the novel we are now understanding of the idea that Clifford’s identity as a black queer male is the catalyst for his arrest, therefore making this identity an imprisoning aspect of himself both literally and figuratively. However, even deep within his circumstance as Dieter Lange’s personal neger, which is not so distantly similar to house slaves in America, the musician part of Clifford’s identity serves as a personal release from his day to day realities. Williams brings the musical part of Clifford into the story by describing what Clifford sees as analogous or similar to musical jargon or experience. For example, on page seventeen, just after Clifford is shaved, given a triangle, and clothed in uniform, he is ordered to go with the captain: “There was a pause like there is just before your fingers come down on the keys, like just before you sing your first note…” This extended simile actually is significant to interpreting Clifford’s own personal identity affiliation. As noted previously about the beginning text of the novel, Williams omits Clifford’s queerness when he introduces himself, but instead focuses on what cannot be changed and is obvious: his blackness, and also what Clifford himself has closely taught himself to do: his piano playing. The fact that Clifford is able to liken even this terrible situation he is in to that of his profession of being a musician shows that Clifford’s own musical identity, not that of what the world perceives him as or what he perceives the world to be, is closely tied to who he sees himself to be. We learn a lot about a character from the way they speak about the world and the way they walk through their environment, and because this novel is formatted as a series of journalistic recounting of traumatic events, Williams calls back to Clifford’s identity by authentically viewing the world through the eyes of a musician who loves what he does. It also shows us that of the three major elements of Clifford’s identity: being black, being queer, and being a musician, being a musician is the one personal choice Clifford has made in his life. The other two features about him are what gets him into trouble, and when he speaks of his queerness for the first time in the novel to God, he desperately cries out, “I didn’t choose to be this way, Lord… forgive me for what I am. If I could stop right now, I would, but it’s not left just to me anymore.” (Williams, 19). However, whenever he discusses music or playing the piano, it is genuine and euphoric almost.

Another early instance of Williams using musical imagery as a liberating tool for Clifford’s identity comes when Clifford describes running away: “I think about running away… so near, so far. Like a blues.” (Williams, 20). Describing the distance of Switzerland from Dachau depresses Clifford, yet he makes the connection between his situation and blues music. When finally given the opportunity to play the piano Dieter Lange acquires, Clifford releases himself into a place outside of his reality. In fact, Clifford, while singing a love song to himself at the piano, describes the experience with a tone of freedom: “When I started, my fingers were tight, bunched up at the knuckles, but the more I played, the looser they got.” (Williams, 27). Williams uses this scene to actually show the reader the affect being a musician has on Clifford. The looser his hands get, the freer the music flows and the calmer he feels. He even reflects on the fact that many love songs are heterosexual songs, and begins to reminisce about his own love life: “only person I think I ever loved was that strange fellow, a writer from Rocky Mountain country.” And blackness: “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Although his relationships ended more bitter than sweet, the action of playing music ties all of Clifford’s identities into one stream of consciousness, as though playing the piano is the only time he is able to fully see himself.

Ultimately, in the first few chapters of Clifford’s Blues, readers are given a sense of what parts of Clifford Brown’s identity work to his disadvantage: being black, and being queer. However, Williams, through diction, punctuation, and metaphoric language, paints a liberating part of Clifford’s black identity through musical expression, performance, analogy and experience. No matter what, when the oppressive power of white Europe tries to strip away a black man’s identity, only to abuse and use that identity for their own benefit, there is always a part of him that will stay true and will help him find hope in his darkest hours.